Transgenerational Trauma; Examining Psychological Roots

Dropping off Austin at preschool today felt so amazing. There is nothing better than to walk with your head up, not having to wrestle with a little ball of energy that tries to dart into the path of every passing car. With my brain free to focus for a few hours on whatever I choose, I decided to write for a while.

I’ve been doing a lot of pondering on transgenerational trauma, which is a growing area of scientific research. Check out an excellent article from Psychology Today called “How Trauma is Carried Across Generations.” One of the groups of people most often cited in studies of transgenerational trauma is children of holocaust survivors. The idea is, that the holocaust was so horrific and the trauma so great that one generation could not absorb it all. Holocaust survivors had to pass their trauma on to their children and grandchildren. Some studies even indicate that our genetic makeup can change in response to trauma. This article explores some of those ideas.

I wrote a blog post some time ago about my parents’ families and the trauma that has been suffered and the ways I have seen that trauma effect me, my siblings, and my cousins. In my scripture study, my internet research, and pondering on the experiences of my own life, I am coming to a greater understanding of the crucial role that family, and particularly our ancestors, play in our lives.

Like the roots of a tree are unseen, so the roots of our psychological makeup are unseen; given to us by generations long past.

Parenting is so hard. This weekend was particularly crazy. Breaking up fights, taking sharp objects from the three year old, helping a child work through a melt down……all of those things are commonplace in our home. I have depression, we pretty much all have ADHD, and we have a toddler, which is like having a blender with no lid spewing chaos in his wake. We threw Austin’s shredded pacifier in the trash two weeks ago. He is still not sleeping well. I have resorted to driving him around in the van so he will take a short nap. If he doesn’t nap, he will scream constantly. A couple of days ago he was screaming at me, for twenty minutes non-stop. You try to tune it out, but it wears on your nerves. Eventually, I tried offering him some hot chocolate. He likes to eat the whipping cream that I put on the top. I tried giving him a spoonful of the white fluffy goodness half melted in chocolate. He turned his face away. I ate it myself and he was clearly offended and screamed even louder. I got him another spoonful. He was starting to get red in the face. Finally, after a loud game of toddler charades, I figured out that he wanted to spray the cream into the cup himself. I let him do it once and he was happy. Of course, he was furious again when I wouldn’t let him endlessly spray cream into the cup. So he was back to screaming.

If he is not screaming at me, he is finding scissors, knifes, paint, or breakable things. Sunday I thought it would be fun to have him play with some playdough on the kitchen table. A few minutes after starting the activity, there were playdough toys scattered in a twenty-foot radius. Pieces of playdough littered the floor in a ten foot radius. In the middle of this cyclone of stickiness, there was Austin, his church clothes embedded with orange and green splotches, standing on the table. With an expression of maniacal glee, he stomped and threw stuff.

“No, no,” Momma patiently insists. I take him off the table. “You sit in your chair.” I start sweeping playdough and picking up toys. Austin sits for less than a minute before trying to climb back on top of the table. “Austin, you need to sit and think about it?” He seems to ignore me, but my voice triggers a response in him. It seems as though the threat of consequences switches the chaos into high gear. With a swift gesture, he sweeps all the remaining playdough supplies onto the floor; a dramatic climax to an ill fated adventure. No more playdough.

I’m not even going to go into Devin and the adventures of teenager angst. The glazed expression of annoyance, the condescending tone, the irritation that we don’t understand his terms or care sufficiently about how cool or uncool we are. Sigh.

Parenting is so hard. We tried to gather the kids together on Sunday for our weekly gospel study. Austin sits for no one. The other kids are wandering around looking for scriptures and journals. Then they get distracted and need redirection. By the time everyone is sitting and ready to start, the tension is already high, and inevitably one of them needs to go use the bathroom. Mom and Dad start firing questions to get brains engaged. “Who remembers who John the Baptist was?” Stunned silence and vacant expressions. “Wesley, who was John the Baptist?” After a pause, “He was a baptist??” And so we work like house elves to draw their thinking out and get them to put something in their study journals. Yesterday at family dinner we talked about the importance of personal scripture study and prayer in developing strong testimonies. I asked them how they felt like they were doing in developing their testimony. Crickets.

Every day the impossible expectations of parenting weigh me down. The patient attentiveness, the alert awareness, the interactive presentness of good parenting is so hard to maintain for any significant length of time. With four children, the individual attention and love each child requires to function optimally seems eternally out of reach. If only I could clone myself!

I share these things with you, not just for you to laugh at, but also to consider the magnitude of the task each parent faces. We as parents stand in the place of God himself to our children. We are the all powerful creators of their reality. I feel much more like the Wizard of Oz with plenty of smoke and mirrors as I threaten my children with “serious consequences” for their disobedience, than I do a wise and judicious God who is in control of all things.

When my children become parents, perhaps they will understand me better. Perhaps they will find some empathy for what I was doing and have mercy on me for the multitude of ways I have fallen short in my parenting. One thing I will never do is hold myself up as the one who had it all figured out, with a set of rigid expectations for how they need to parent their own children. I plan to explore this issue in future posts, but I’m going to go in a different direction today.

Our parents shape us. There is no question about that. I have observed that the default human tendency is to exalt our parents. If we have superior parents, that follows that we are superior. That can feel pretty good. It’s also easy because we can parent just like our parent’s did, and all will be well. When we find fault with our parents and the way they did things, we are by extension, finding fault with ourselves. In addition, if our parents messed up, that means we have to work hard to do something different. This is so much more than just blaming parents, it is setting aside the illusions reinforced in the family narrative that is driving dysfunctional thinking and depressive symptoms.

Therapy is, at its core, intense and rigorous introspection. Like a cancer screening, you must enter each psychic cellular crack and crevice to find the places where unhealthy thoughts and behaviors take root. Sometimes those poisonous plants have seeds sown in previous generations. More problematic still, the prior generations are not likely to take kindly to suggestions that their methods were hurtful and wrong.

Ideally, we can split off from our parents, make our own paths, take the good that they gave us and go a different direction. Unfortunately, in dysfunctional families, that is almost impossible to do. Like crabs in a bucket, a dysfunctional family will pull one another back into the bucket each time one the members tries to escape. Scapegoating, gaslighting, and projecting are all too common in these families. The therapy patient can be overwhelmed with the reality of the awful state of things as they confront the larger systemic problems in their family.

Looking on from the outside, is recovery even worth it? Isn’t it better to follow the family narrative, make everyone happy, and live depressed? I’ve often wondered the same thing. Why confront the family illusions? Why rock the boat? The answer is in the faces of my children. They deserve better.

They deserve a mom that is not depressed. They deserve a family narrative that is honest and holds up to scrutiny. They deserve better and I am going to give it to them. I have a dream of a family unencumbered by the cancer of shame and the demons of depression; a large and prosperous posterity that can realize the potential that lies in each individual member. I pray to my Savior that I can have the courage and wisdom to depart from the sins and errors of the past and bring my family onto a better path, a more perfect way. My Savior is the Father of my destiny, the pilot of my tomorrow. He will guide me and my little ones to lie down in green pastures. I put my trust in him and no one else.

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